The question of identity and representation confronts every young Black male.
A young Black male should look like_________.
That fill-in-the-blank question is not so easy and opens up a Pandora’s box of more questions. What’s the acceptable presentation of self for a young Black male? What are the limits? What happens to anyone who switches up the code? Who decides?
They are tough questions that Jesse Clark tackles head on in his latest photography series “Everglow,” which opens Sept. 1 at Art Center Sarasota. The issues Clark confronts in these images would be challenging to a seasoned photographer. But Clark is a third-year student majoring in photography and imaging at Ringling College of Art and Design. Based on this series, he has learned his lessons well.
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The photographs are mainly staged vignettes of young, African-American men. Don’t think Jaden Smith or Donald Glover. Clark’s figures are dressed in pinks and pastels, and often adorned with flowers. They’re the antithesis of the tough Black guys who dominate film and TV. That’s Clark’s intention.
Essentially, this series is his rebuttal to mass-media stereotypes.
“Movies and TV often showcase a very narrow view of African-American men,” Clark said in an interview. Black males are typically depicted as super-aggressive. They might be a football jock, a gangster, or even a criminal. My series deconstructs that cliché. I portraying the Black male figure in a soft, humanizing way. Instead of guns and violence, I utilize the flower – which symbolically represents softness and beauty.”
That sounds vague and abstract. Clark’s actual photographs are crystal clear. His staged vignettes have a crisp, hyper-reality. His figures are larger-than-life, in a Technicolor world of saturated color.
“Everglow” is the iconic photograph that gave the series its title. A young Black male, eyes closed, is either daydreaming or lost in thought while surrounded by a field of pastel flowers. His orange pants and blue sweater echo the floral hues around him. The colors resonate like sympathetic chords of visual music.
“David” is an intentional echo of Michelangelo’s “David” and also a sly mirror image. It’s an up-angle shot of a young Black man in a yellow tank top. Where David’s left hand held a sling, this figure’s right hand is empty. He stands in front of a yellow house against an impossibly blue sky. There’s no Goliath in sight.
“Hero” depicts a young Black man wearing a reflective metal helmet that hides his face. His posture is a warrior’s stance. But a typical warrior’s helmet has a crest symbolizing conquest and domination. This helmet has a crest of flowers. A symbol of life, not death.
Clark’s figures have aesthetic appeal and no hint of aggression.
“These photographs put African American identity in a new light,” Clark says. ‘What does it mean to be a Black male?’ I’m showing there are many different correct answers. Tough? That’s one answer we’re used to. But a Black male could also be someone who’s soft, loving, and beautiful.”
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Clark’s artistic intent is in sharp focus: creating change in the world by changing perceptions in the viewer’s mind. It’s an ambitious goal. According to Clark, it was one of his key lessons at Ringling College.
“Originally, all I wanted to do was take beautiful pictures,” he says. “And that’s what I did, beginning in high school. Then, in my sophomore year at Ringling, one professor asked me, ‘What does your work mean?’ That question prompted me to start using photography as a tool for change.”
Clark’s art had new purpose. But his artist was always strong.
Thomas Carabasi, Clark’s head of Ringling College’s department of photography and imaging, describes him as a gifted student and a fast learner.
“Jesse quickly achieved a technical mastery of lighting, lenses and the fundamentals of picture-making,” Carabasi says. “He then moved into some very challenging subject matter. Specifically, he deals with the meaning of Black identity. He has a fresh, contemporary take, and it’s very relevant to this historical moment.”
“Through Dark Eyes” was Clark’s first walk on the soft side. His initial series of staged photographs used a small circle of his friends and fellow students as models. Instead of bossing them around, he guided them in a collaborative process. He used the same process in his latest series.
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Clark’s expressive language is also informed by dance. Movement was Clark’s first creative medium. As a child, he had studied ballet, tap and other forms of dance. He shifted his focus to visual arts while studying at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland. But he applied the gestures he’d learned to his new medium.
“Gesture is one of the biggest things in my photography,” he says. “I take inspiration from my ballet experience, its vocabulary of soft, upright movement.”
Clark is also inspired by the work of photographer Tyler Mitchell, painter Kehinde Wiley, and other contemporary Black artists.
Raw talent, creative vision, and artistic influences.
It all adds up to beautiful images.
Clark is adamant that this beauty isn’t a denial of the hardships of the Black community. He knows from personal experience that life for a young, gifted Black man isn’t always a pretty picture. He was born in Haiti and adopted by a white family in 2003. At home, his parents’ love was unconditional. Outside the family, Clark experienced his share of rejection from white people who saw him as a threat. He knows reality can be ugly for Black people. But it’s not the only reality.
“My art is just one aspect of the whole,” he says. “I’m fully aware that today’s African-Americans have to deal with brutality, violence, stereotypes, and structural and personal racism. I’m not denying those struggles. But I don’t want the future of Black experience to be totally defined and limited by them. There is more to Black identity worth sharing.”
Enlightenment is Clark’s antidote to ignorance, which applies both to self-image and the perceptions of others.
Art Center Sarasota Executive Director Kinsey Robb said she was deeply impressed by Clark’s powerful photography and his liberating spirit.
“’Everglow’ is such a joyful word,” she says. “It’s a playful combination of ‘ever’ and ‘glow’ and it evokes a sense of constant illumination and beauty. That really shines through in Jesse’s work. There’s so much negativity today, a pull to the dark side. Jesse sees that darkness. But he wants us to see that the darkness hasn’t defeated the light.”
Let’s say the light wins. What should a young Black man do?
According to Clark, just be yourself.
“Other people will try to tell you who are – or who you’re supposed to be. Don’t let anybody put you in a box. You’re the expert on who you are. Nobody knows you any better than yourself.”
Clark’s work is one of four new shows running simultaneously to open a new season at Art Center Sarasota. The opening exhibits also include Alissa Silvers’ ‘Live in Color’; “I Am the Clay,” an all-ceramics exhibit featuring 16 local artists curated by Carla O’Brien; and “Pop!” a juried show inspired by the Pop Art movement.
Run Sept. 1-30, at Art Center Sarasota, 707 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. The artist will talk about his work at 5:30 pm Sept. 15. (941) 365-2032; artsarasota.org
Read more visual arts stories by Marty Fugate.